What you need to know before you visit Venice for the first time
When we decided to visit Venice for the first time this year, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. Yes, Venice is famous for its canals, but it didn’t really dawn on us what that meant to us visitors until we actually arrived at St Lucia train station with our luggage in our hands.
So I thought it would be a good idea to put together a bit of a travel guide to Venice for you with all the stuff that we learned along the way. Because Venice is special. And it’s beautiful. And I want you to visit it one day, because it’s so incredibly beautiful that it hurts. Which is why I am also adding a handful of photos of this beautiful city to this post, so that you can get an idea of what to expect.
Arriving in Venice
There are different ways how you can get to Venice these days, it’s not that difficult. If you are located somewhere in Europe, you may want to look at air fares to Venice Marco Polo Airport and then take a ferry into the city. There are different operators including the private ferry operator Alilaguna which operates different routes servicing the main ferry terminals around the lagoon such as San Marco, Murano and Lido. To get to the San Marco area expect a 70min ride.
If you arrive by train you can get really close to the historic centre to St Lucia railway station. Having said that, to get to San Marco you still need to switch to a ferry outside the station. Alternatively, you can walk but it will take you somewhere between 45mins to an hour, especially if you consider that you are passing through crowded places with your luggage. There are also a number of bridges to cross, most of them with steps on them, which means you need to haul your luggage rather than roll it over the bridge. Overall I can attest that it’s doable, but you will need a shower and a cool drink once you arrive at your hotel. We took the night sleeper train Thello from Paris, you can read all about it here.
If you arrive by Cruise Ship you may find that the cruise ship company will provide a courtesy shuttle to San Marco. This shuttle may not be free but it adds extra service to the regularly operating public ferry. I wouldn’t suggest walking the distance as it is really rather far and not very charming.
If you arrive by car you will probably realise that Venice is a non-motorised city in the historic centre, so you won’t get very far with your car. The same goes to taxis and busses – your journey will end just at the tip of the main island at Piazzale Roma, basically a giant parking lot and garage area. As you may suspect prices for parking won’t come cheap, and getting there in the first place across the causeway can be a nightmare. You are also running the risk of not finding parking at all. To put it in other words – scrap the idea of travelling to Venice in your own car. If you do need to take the car find parking well outside the city centre and continue your journey on public transport.
For more information, check out this very useful Lonely Planet guide which has also the details such as cost and travel times.
Choose your luggage carefully
No matter which mode of transport you choose to travel to Venice, be prepared for longer walks with your luggage in hand. There may be porters who would be willing to help for a fee, but they may not always be around. It makes sense to invest in good quality suitcases and bags that have little wheels that can withstand a beating or two.
Venice’s tiny bridges are steep and have stairs on them, so you need to either haul the luggage one step at a time or carry it over to the other side.
Also, ferries don’t accept too much luggage – try to limit your number of suitcases to one per person (plus one handbag).
Don’t get lost in the labyrinth
In times of Google Maps and other smartphone mapping services we are less prone to getting lost Venice. And yes, we did have to make use of Google Maps a number of times, just because it can be so confusing to be channeled through tiny laneways, not much wider than the width of your shoulders, with unexpected corners and oftentimes passageways that are going through courtyards and along back routes.
The old-fashioned way to orientate in Venice is actually not bad either. On house walls you will very often find signs with arrows that read one or two of the following: “Rialto”, “San Marco”, “Ferrovia”. These signs indicate general directions to the main areas of the historic centre. So all you need to know is where your hotel is approximately located, for example in San Polo – this would be close to the Rialto Bridge.
Ferrovia stands for train station, which is St Lucia in Venice. The train station is basically at the opposite end of the island as seen from San Marco, so this way you will always know where north and south is.
The best thing you can do once you have arrived at your hotel is ask for a map of the city. This map will show even the tiniest of “streets” that you would otherwise overlook plus all the ferry routes, so you will be fully equipped for exploring the city on foot.
This is a pedestrianised city
Of course it’s clear that Venice is a city of canals with no traffic, but just how all of this would pan out I didn’t really expect. Somehow I was expecting at least some kind of faster transport such as scooters or bikes, but the city of Venice is not having any of these either.
Everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY is walking in this city. Venice is not made for wheels at all. If you are travelling with small children you may want to carry them rather than using a pram. There are many steps in Venice, and if you want to step onto a ferry you will thank me for this suggestion too.
I have not seen a wheelchair once, so I am not sure how feasible it would be to travel to Venice as a disabled person.
If you wonder how deliveries are done and garbage is collected – it happens all with the aid of trolleys and handcarts, just like in the old days.
And if you’ve never seen a human motorway, come to Venice, because some of these streets are so crowded and fast-paced, entering them feels like using an on-ramp.
This may all sound pretty negative, but in fact it’s not. This is what adds this particular charm to Venice. Experiencing the city on foot is a wonderful thing to do – despite the crowds which seem to pool in some places you have a much more fulfilling experience looking at tiny details, venturing out into smaller alleyways, taking your time exploring.
Once you leave the tourists behind you you can marvel at the silence of the traffic-free lanes, the lack of fumes and absence of danger. It really does transport you back a couple of hundred years to a place where distances were still measured differently and time meant something else altogether.
How to use the vaporetto
The vaporetti are the public ferries that service the islands in the lagoon, including the islands of Burano, Murano and Lido. You can avoid using the ferries if you decide to stick to the centre of Venice, everything is close-by and can be reached on foot. However, if you want to venture out and see some other fascinating sights like the glass blowers’ island of Murano and the colourful houses of the lace producing island of Burano, you will need to get your head around using the ferry.
The ferry system is pretty straightforward. You just buy your ticket at the ticket office before waiting on the pontoon for your ferry to arrive. You hop on and then hop off again at your destination. The conductor on board or at the ferry wharf will check that you have a valid ticket.
Taking the ferry is not cheap, and using a travel pass may not make it much cheaper unless you want to use the vaporetti a lot. Expect to pay 7 euros per ride and person or 20 euros for the day and do your own maths.
We found that visiting the outlying islands was an absolutely rewarding experience (as you will soon see on the blog!), and I urge you to consider at least a trip to pretty Burano on one of your days in Venice.
For further information on using the vaporetto in Venice, check out this very detailed information here.
The chaos of San Marco
Nothing, really nothing prepared us for the chaos that we encountered in San Marco. This is the absolute core of San Marco, the place where you will find the most important church, the St Mark’s Basilica, the Archaeological Museum, the main ferry stop, the medieval administrative centre with the Palazzo Ducale, the Bridge of Sighs (on the backside of the palazzo), the Campanile (bell tower) and the Museo Correr. That’s quite a lot of sights crammed into quite a small space.
The first time we stepped onto the Piazza San Marco we were appalled. Way too many people are trying to get a slice of Venice here, there are loitering around with their selfie sticks, queuing to get into one of the museums or the church, selling cheap souvenirs and water bottles, pick your pockets or trying to look at the historic fronts of the buildings. Waaaaay too many people to actually enjoy the square.
What a pity! The piazza is probably one of the prettiest places you will ever see in your lifetime, if it wasn’t for all these people. You see, I was born and raised in Europe, I have seen busy places before. But this is just beyond what I can take. This is not visiting a historic place, it is like being in the D-zone of an open-air concert.
I hate to say it but the Piazza San Marco was for us the least attractive place to be. Once we had taken our pictures we just had to get out of here as quickly as possible. And taking pictures wasn’t easy – just a photo of the Bridge of Sighs for example, taken from the totally overcrowded neighbouring bridge was a real struggle as I was fighting for a free viewing spot and trying not to get pulled back into the stream of pedestrians that were using the bridge to get to other parts of the city.
This is not the Venice you want to see. It’s a tourist trap with way too many people, just ridiculous.
And a word of warning: if you are planning on seeing any of the buildings surrounding the piazza on the inside, plan ahead accordingly and secure your ticket now before you travel. Otherwise you may not be able to get in at all.
Cover up in churches
This is very good advice coming from someone who has seen a number of churches in the Mediterranean region this year: you need to pack a scarf for your shoulders and/or for your legs. Because in Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Spain or Greece they take modesty in churches very seriously, and you really would want to see the golden splendour on the inside of these churches and not miss out.
As a general rule of thumb you need to have your shoulders and knees covered, and this does not only apply to the ladies, of course. Now, you can choose to wear a long skirt or pants and a t-shirt all day, but this may not be a good idea on very hot days. Or you can just pack a light silk scarf that you can throw around your shoulder or tie around your hips when needed.
If you are visiting the Vatican you won’t be allowed inside the holiest areas of the city such as the Sistine Chapel, and there will be people there patrolling the dress code, so be warned.
Ask for the wifi password
This is something I learned along the way and that was actually quite new to me: we found that most cafes and restaurants in south Europe now offer free wifi for their patrons. So when you sit down and order your drink you should ask for the password straightaway. Sometimes you will find it printed in the menu for your convenience, but very often the free wifi wasn’t advertised at all, and we only found out by asking.
Sitting in the shade of a cafe, enjoying a drink and updating your Facebook status is probably one of the most relaxing things you can do while travelling, so enjoy!
Eat like a local
When we were in Venice we discovered some wonderful traditional dishes that you may want to try too.
Fegato alla Veneziana: Don’t be scared of liver and give this one a go – the calves liver is cut into mouth-sized pieces and shallow-fried with onions, usually served up with some yummy polenta.
Spaghetti vongole: The classic spaghetti dish served with tiny clams in their shell – oily, garlicky, yummy.
Squid in black ink: This is a side dish or appetiser – the squid is cut up in mouth-sized pieces that are served in an incredibly rich, creamy black sauce made from its own ink. Not a fishy taste at all, but rather a celebration of umami.
Sarde in Saor: The typical fisherman’s dish – sardines in a sweet and sour sauce, served with onions. Traditionally, these preserved sardines were the packed lunch of the fishermen that went out to sea for the day. A lovely appetiser, refreshing and light.
Lose yourself in Venice
I touched on the chaos of the Piazza San Marco before – don’t let this turn you off from visiting Venice. This city has so much to offer, you just need to steer clear of the tourist hubs with all its downsides. It’s really easy to lose yourself in the maze of canals and lanes and start drifting. Yes, you can charter a gondola and do it this way, or you can just start walking and discover the lesser known areas of the city.
Venice is like an American’s dream, put into reality so consistently that you won’t find any reference of the modern age anywhere. There’s still washing lines zig-zagging across the laneways, pointy window frames that show their Arab roots, backdoor entrances just above water level, tiny shrines with faded statues of the Madonna, shuttered windows, public wells and hidden treasures like this beautiful open staircase named Scala Contarini del Bovolo below.
All of this, the buildings, the canals, the bridges, are painted with a patina of decay – there’s crumbling plaster and exposed bricks, rotting wooden beams and lose shutters everywhere. It’s the imperfections that give Venice an authenticity that is unmatched anywhere in the world.
Visiting Venice is an experience of a lifetime, and I hope you will get the chance to see this beautiful city yourself one day. For now, I hope you will enjoy the photos. More to follow in the next couple of weeks, so sign up now!
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